A plane in turbulence is like a piece of fruit in Jello. It can wiggle, but it won't suddenly fall to the bottom.
Credit: iStockphoto

I love to travel. But traveling isn’t as fun when your mind catapults into an ongoing feeling of perpetual doom every time you’re 30,000 feet in the air. I hadn’t always been afraid of flying. I flew all the time growing up and had to take small four-seat propeller planes at least eight times a year. As a kid I’d jump into my cozy seat, clasp the wonderful airplane pin to my shirt, and immediately fall asleep. I’d wake up however many hours later to my sister nudging me as we oohed and aahed at the window, peering down at the world below.

I developed the fear slowly, until eventually the anxiety overcame the joy. The fear never totally stopped me from getting on a plane, but the days before a trip would be an anxiety-stricken nightmare. When I flew, I’d get off a plane with dark circles under my eyes and my hand stiffened into a claw from clutching the armrest. Once, a six-year-old asked me if I was OK. She, of course, was totally calm. A few months later, after hours pouring over fear-of-flying websites, I landed on a class sponsored by British Airways called "Flying With Confidence." That's what I wanted: the confidence of a six-year-old.

I was apprehensive when I arrived at the conference room of the JW Marriot Essex, thinking that the class would be a waste of a Saturday—and my $300. To my surprise, the class was transformative. There were at least 20 people of all ages, two of whom hadn't been on a plane since 1994. A British Airways pilot with more than two decades of experience and a licensed therapist taught the seminar. Discussions ranged from Bernoulli’s principle of flight to how, exactly, a plane flies, even when both engines fail. The look of impending doom on the faces of my fellow-phobics began to lift as we learned about aerodynamics.

(It didn't hurt that the pilot had a great sense of British humor and served hot scones with dollops of clotted cream during the break.)

The therapist taught us that a fear is like a bully nagging you on your shoulder and by feeding the bully with irrational thoughts the bully grows. Knowledge is the best way to conquer a fear, she said. Sure enough, as the class progressed, I started to feel the bully start to leave me alone.

One month later, as I boarded a transatlantic flight, the anxiety and negative thoughts receded, replaced by internal recitation of what I learned:

• Turbulence is uncomfortable, not dangerous. They compared a plane to a piece of fruit stuck in Jello; it can wiggle, but it will never suddenly fall to the bottom.
• Pilots always have contingency plans (which they rarely have to use).
• A plane’s engine can withstand impact from four large birds without any damage. They test this with large frozen turkeys. (Now you have a conversation starter this Thanksgiving. You're welcome.)
• Every single pilot for all airlines must take refresher exams every six months. If they fail, they’re placed on temporary leave.

After six hours, I landed. I left the bully on the tarmac.

The majority of classes are held at Heathrow Airport, but a list of other destinations can be found on the British Airways website.